African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana
Ta da! I now reveal the identity of the textured photo from last week. Those of you who guessed elephant, go to the head of the class.
Our elephant adventure began when we stepped into the dining tent at Stanley’s Camp in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. My fifteen-year-old son immediately exclaimed “Wow! This is the best lunch ever!” I looked around to see what earned this declaration. The food was not in sight yet, so that wasn’t it. He wasn’t even looking at the cool way the tent gave the right of way to the sausage trees:
When he saw my puzzled face, he exasperatedly gestured past the flap and said: “No there!”
Our very first elephant sighting was of this exceptionally large bull, affectionately named Stanley by the camp staff. It seemed fitting that the camp would be named after this elephant rather than the famous explorer. After all, the camp encroached upon Stanley the Elephant’s territory when it was built. On the other hand, the camp’s wildlife program helps protect Stanley and other animals in the region. Our guide Poniso was thrilled to see our son’s glee because he was certain that he would experience the “best vacation ever” with what was coming ahead.
On our last day at Stanley’s we spent an extraordinary morning with a trio of special elephants. Oregon native Douglas Groves, founder of Living with Elephants Foundation, and his two capable elephant handlers introduced us to Jabu, Thembi and Morula. Groves and his zoologist wife Sandi adopted them after they were orphaned by culling programs in South Africa and Zimbabwe. The controversial culling practice is used to reduce the burgeoning elephant population.
As soon as we met Groves he began sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of all things elephant. He rattled off facts about the elephant’s habitat, behavior, diet, anatomy, and morphology in rapid-fire succession. In the mean time, the threesome stayed within our sight eating everything in their path. Here Jabu gave the Real Fan Palm several vigorous shakes with his trunk. It looks like the tree on the right got shaken a bit too vigorously in the past:
His goal was to free these prized nuts, known colloquially known as vegetable ivory:
Once released, all three hoovered up this elephant delicacy:
The leaves of this palm appeared to be tasty too:
A branch of this juvenile raintree was within easy reach and with a snap and a “crunch crunch” the branch vanished within a minute, leaving only a stump behind.
Elephants spend sixteen hours a day foraging and need to eat an average of 300 pounds (140 kilograms) of vegetation per day to survive. It didn’t take long for us to learn how to recognize where elephants have trod:
giving us a glimpse into the complex debate about the practice of elephant culling in many parts of Africa. I promise to do a separate post on this very complex issue.
Groves put his elephant training background to use when he taught the trio multiple maneuvers to teach us about their anatomy and behaviors:
Elephants rarely lie down, but when they do, they favor lying on the slope of a termite hill so they don’t get crushed by their own weight and to make it easier to rise again.
Groves taught Jabu to trumpet on command and even how to make very funny kissy noises:
Groves understood how the livelihood of his beloved elephants depended on creating photo opportunities for his audience. Here he produced fruit and vegetable tidbits from his pouch to persuade Marula to flex her ears:
I believe it was Thembi who liked to borrow hats:
She was also very talented at swinging her trunk in circles on command:
As I observed these elephants in their natural environment, I had to keep reminding myself that we were not in a zoo or looking through the window of a diorama in a natural history museum. When I was reviewing my photos, this shot looked to me like it might have been taken on a set in Hollywood:
After the entertaining and informative demonstration, Groves and his handlers mounted the elephants and rode to the luncheon waiting for us in a shade of a lovely grove of trees.
It was difficult to take in the marvel of the morning we spent with these magnificent elephants. I'm sure you understand how I turned black and blue from pinching myself throughout this trip.